Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Why the Dog Will Never Die in My Books

When we were young, we had a host of animals, mostly cats and dogs, but with a couple of Guinea pigs and hermit crabs thrown in for good measure.  One of our best, and most ill-behaved, pets was a sixty-pound Golden Retriever named Dusty who had a habit of escaping at the first sound of the open screen door, usually taking my frail grandmother down with him as he bounded outside, happy to be running free and in the fresh air.  I can speak favorably and lovingly of him now because he’s been dead for thirty-five years but back when he was living with us, well, he was a royal pain in the tuchus.

My parents both worked in those days so my grandmother was charged with getting us off to school with our frozen bologna sandwiches and Devil Dogs, a dime each for the carton of warm milk we would buy when lunchtime rolled around.  My grandmother didn’t drive, so getting us on the bus was imperative because once the bus left, if one of us hadn’t made it on, we would have to walk close to two miles to get to school.  Now that doesn’t sound like a long distance now, but back then, our legs were shorter and the miles seemed interminable.  Suffice it to say that we would ran, en masse, when we heard the squeal of the breaks, someone older pushing someone younger ahead so that we didn’t have to hoof it.  We always made it.

Except for one day.

Dusty had a travelin’ jones that beautiful fall morning and was just waiting for the chance to get out and run pell-mell throughout the neighborhood.  I went out after him, chasing him all the way down our street toward the reservoir, begging him to come back home.  I knew I had all of five or six minutes to make this happen, but as luck would have it, he was out without his leash or even his collar so I had to pin him to the ground and basically drag him up the street, his sixty pounds feeling like a thousand as we inched our way up the street toward home and the bus stop.  We were about halfway up when I heard the familiar siren song of the bus coming down the street and saw my siblings running toward its open doors.  That’s when I began to cry.

Through some sheer force of will, I did manage to get the dog the two hundred and fifty feet back to the house, where I threw him inside and cried to my grandmother that not only would I have to walk to school, I would now be late and probably have to serve detention, meaning that I would have to walk home, too.  She cried right along with me, apologizing for never having gotten her license and trying to figure out what we could do to get me to school in time for the bell.  Desperate, I ran outside and spied my neighbor, Bobby, getting into his brand-new Mustang convertible, the one with the white leather seats, the one that he didn’t let any of us near.  He was on his way to his job as a first-year teacher at a local high school and while I won’t go so far as to say that he was unhappy to see me, let’s just say that, well, seeing me crying in my uniform with my book bag wasn’t the way he wanted to start his day.  I begged him for a ride, explaining the tale of dragging Dusty up the street and missing the bus, the same one that two of his younger brothers rode with me to St. Catherine’s.  He finally relented after my grandmother intervened, making me sit at the edge of the passenger-side seat, lest my plaid uniform leave some kind of deleterious stain on the white leather upholstery.

I spent the day smoldering with rage at the dog, who was a colossal pain in the butt about 90% of the time.  In addition to escaping, he ate our socks, our sweaters, our shoes; he stole things from kids disembarking the school bus; he barked at things we couldn’t see; and he needed to be loved and petted constantly even in the middle of dinner.  But when I got home, and he ran to me, slobbering and jumping and just so excited to see me, I could do nothing but hug him and kiss him because when all was said and done, he was just a dog.  And a beautiful, fun, loving one at that who adored me in spades and who had a bad habit of escaping when he should have been napping next to my grandmother.

Dusty died at the age of two, after a brief, but horrible, illness, right around the time that he stopped escaping and started becoming the dog we always wanted.  I will never forget my mother, painting the trim in our bathroom, crying and telling me that she didn’t think we could ever get another dog because she just got too attached and it was too painful when they died.  She cried for several days and while I couldn’t really understand it then—the kids and I moved on with extreme alacrity—I do now.

Intellectually, when we get a pet, we know that they are only ours for a short time in the grand scheme of things but the comfort and pleasure we get while they are here on earth with us is so powerful and all-encompassing that we can’t resist the pull to ownership.  With my dog advancing in age, I’m already thinking about getting another dog so that when she goes—and it will happen—I’ll have someone else to comfort me in her absence.  She is a part of our family and plays just as important a role as the humans who make up our little band of Barbieris.

I was thinking about our pets—both past and present—this weekend after I got a call from a good friend telling me that her beloved dog, a miniature Schnauzer named Stella, had died suddenly and unexpectedly.  The shock of hearing that, coupled with the knowledge of how much I love our little Westie and our big, giant cat, made me so sad that I burst into the tears, my friend and I crying over the loss of this twenty-pound animal who loved to bark at squirrels, who played with my dog in the summer while the kids swam in the pool, and who loved to bury her bone in the couch cushions to protect it for later consumption. So while this blog may seem like just a bunch of ramblings about a disobedient Golden Retriever named Dusty, it is a tribute to all of our beloved pets, the ones who grace our lives for a short time but who bring us so much joy and happiness while they are here.

To Stella—I hope you are enjoying a big, giant JumBone in heaven.

Stiletto faithful, tell us about your favorite memory of a beloved pet.

Maggie Barbieri


  1. Maggie, we had dogs and cats while I was growing up (including several golden retrievers!). I didn't realize until I was an adult how often animals that I thought "went to live on a farm" because of old age or injuries had to be put to sleep. My mom always had to take them (my dad was no help). Your tale of your mom crying and painting trim sounds very familiar, as a matter of fact. Poor moms! I've lost two cats in my adulthood, one who died in my arms of a blood clot in his lungs at nine and his brother who had to be put to sleep at 10 because his heart was giving out and he couldn't breathe. Argh. It is never easy. But I'm with you: I like to dive back in and rescue more fur-kids that need homes as soon as I can or I'll just wallow in grief. Ed and I have three now, and I don't even want to think of a day when they won't be around. They are a part of our family, and I think I probably love them more than some of my human relatives (okay, I know I do!).

  2. Susan, "fur-kids": That's a really good way to describe them. Bonnie and Diego are now an integral part of our family and I can't imagine life without them! Maggie

  3. Well, in the past three years we've lost three cats. Pooky, the Queen of Cats, our half-Siamese, smoked tabby cat from Paris who died essentially from congestive heart failure almost three years ago at age 20. Just a few months before that we lost Midgie, at age nine to pancreatic cancer--she was our "principessa" who was a feral kitten with bad vision, but very brave. On Halloween of this year, our puppy-cat Desi, a 19.5 year old creamy-yellow tabby, became suddenly ill with what may have been a tumor in his skull or perhaps an infection. While doing so well on treatment for his long-term kidney disease and for a sudden bout of anemia, he began experiencing seizures and just seemed to be leaving us in spirit. We had to let the vet give him an injection to end his life, but our puppy-cat had started leaving us a few days before we had to let his little body go.

    All of this sad stuff is only sad exactly because of the many years of absolute joy we all had together. I saw a movie called Shadowlands about the relationship of the writer CS “Jack” Lewis and the woman he married late-in-life, the American Joy Gresham. She died early in the marriage and in the film, while taking a vacation during her illness, she brings up her impending death and Jack doesn’t want to spoil the good time talking about that. She tells him that this good time will be part of that terrible grief later, and vice versa. That’s how I try to think about the animals we love in our lives: while you think in the middle of your grief that you can’t bear to even live with and love another animal because the loss hurts so much, how can you say that you would trade even one of the great days you had with your sweet dog, cat, rabbit, etc., to try and “spare” yourself pain when they leave? That seems like a lousy and pre-emptively sad way to live, doesn’t it?

    So, some of the good:

    Pooky was so pig-headed that we changed that phrase to “cat-headed” around our house. She was totally unflappable, totally determined, and totally beautiful. We flew home to America when she was three and about six hours into the flight I asked the attendant if I could take her out of her carrier carefully for just a moment to give her some water and a quick little rub-down the attendant said (in French) “Oh, but of course! The poor girl! She must feel so cooped up. Perhaps you should let her roam the plane for a few minutes and she will catch us a mouse!” Yeah, that’s what we all needed on a trans-Atlantic flight—Pooky roaming free to work the crowd!

    Midgie was a fat, soft little tabby who chattered at you and never gave up reminding you of her toughness by giving you a hiss or a growl as easily as a yawn. She loved to flop over on her side anyplace you wanted to walk and she liked to chew on the leaves of our tomato plants. She also could and did pull glass ornaments off the Christmas tree without breaking and roll them all over the house for laughs.

    Desi was the puppy-cat who loved nothing more than being with his people. He thought he was one of us and we were one of him and he only had trust and love in his heart. He could have a nutty and run through the house toppling over chairs in his wake and sounding like a 50 pound dog thundering down the hall instead of the 9 pound cat he was, but he was always overflowing with love.

    We are not ready for another pet to love, but we know we will be one day and we are glad for that. I have never been a person who liked phrases like “fur-babies”, mostly because animals are wonderful just as they are, sometimes more wonderful than people, and it doesn’t up their stock to me to put them in a human context, you know? The differences between a kid/person and a cat/dog are huge and the human animal isn’t always the winner in the comparison!